Top 8 tips on how to manage projects
Project management: The theory
What is a project? Well, oxforddictionaries.com gives the primary definition of the noun as:
An individual or collaborative enterprise that is carefully planned to achieve a particular aim.
Few would argue with this being a good, high-level catch-all that pretty much covers all use cases. However, below this high-level description, there are many other characteristics which projects of different types and for different purposes may exhibit.
One of the key ideas is that a project is generally a temporary rather than a permanent arrangement because it is limited in scope. It often includes a system of socialized work because it is carried out by teams of people.
These may have to cross departmental boundaries because the project is multidisciplinary within a single organization. They may also have to cross inter-organizational barriers as teams form different businesses collaborate to achieve the project aims.
A number of individual projects can be grouped together to form a work program. This sets out intermediate goals that support the ultimate objective of the work program. This approach breaks up a large or ambitious undertaking into smaller, bit-sized pieces to help ease complexity.
In the world of formalized project management, a project is an organized effort motivated by the need to solve a problem, meet a need or satisfy a desire. Projects have a beginning and an end.
Project Management Professionals are likely to be schooled in the 4 Ps of project management:
- Plan - mapping out the project
- Processes - the procedures that underpin the project
- People - human resource with the appropriate knowledge and skills
- Power - hierarchy of authority
Another common organizing idea uses the SMART criteria, which says that projects should be:
To truly be classed as a project, all work is governed by the three key constraints of time, cost and quality. All of these are measured throughout the project lifecycle, which is a closed and dynamic system with a start and a finish.
This theoretical and philosophical foundation for project management is all well and good, especially in environments where there is a need for compliance through the use of frameworks. Examples include PM2, officially adopted by the European Union, or the internationally recognized standards of PRINCE2 and PMP. One of the key elements which distinguish these formalized practitioner methodologies is that they enable the evaluation of risk.
However, many everyday projects that companies of all types conduct do not need such highly developed frameworks. These overly complicate matters and tend to create drag.
Towards a more practical everyday form of project management
One way that gives us the ability to arrive at a more practical and easy-to-understand method of approaching projects is to simply see them as a sequence of events. Essentially, a project is just a set of interrelated tasks that are carried out over a fixed period within the limitations set by cost, time and quality.
When we look at projects through the ‘lens’ of tasks, we are able to arrive at a more pragmatic and sensible way of doing things that can be as simple, or as complex as we need it to be. Here we discuss some tips to help you do a better job of managing your projects.
Top tip 1: Don’t use pen and paper…
All across business and industry, paper-based processes for managing workflow and operations are being swept away by Line-of-Business applications. These are dedicated to the industry, segment or niche.
If it is timesheets for temporary and contract workers… there’s an app for recording the time worked. Should it be business expense tracking… there’s an online tool for recording spend and capturing receipts. When it is engineering quality management… there’s a SaaS application that can script and guide the inspection of technical installations and record photographic evidence of the standard of work.
All of these things and many more, including project management, used to be recorded manually on paper. It wastes time through duplication, because inevitably someone needs to perform data entry into a digital format of some type through copy typing. Skip paper and use a digital tool to start with.
Top tip 2: Don’t use Excel!
Avoid using Excel as your digital tool. OK! So, you can set up some nice looking Gantt charts and layout workstreams, set deadlines and maybe see critical paths. However, it can be quite time consuming and project management needs something that doesn’t suck up your time with formatting and the like. There’s a lot more to successfully managing a project than Gantt charts, and in terms of delivering value to project management as a holistic practice, the value of Excel is limited.
Top tip 3: Be sure to use a dedicated project management system
There are quite literally hundreds, if not thousands of project management Line-of-Business applications out there. Take some time out to research and take free trials or sign-up for a freemium level of access of the ones that might be a fit for you. See how they work and what you get before you take out a paid subscription.
You might want to take a look at Breeze. It’s a good start because it’s simple and easy to use and it can be as simple (think project management for Dummies) or as complex (with Gantt charts) as you need it to be.
Top tip 4: Figure out your tasks
Breakdown your project by figuring out the individual tasks that are needed to complete the project. (It’s OK to make minimal use of paper if you need to.) A simple project management board, (such as the one in Breeze) lets you work with lists of tasks.
It’s useful if the system you choose lets you enrich each task with comments or other information and tags.
Top tip 5: Planning your work
Once you have your tasks set out, you can plan the work and set out the workflow. This is chronological, it sets the order in which tasks are tackled. At the most basic level, a simple project management board (like in Breeze!) lets you set out the task workflow in three lists shown as adjacent columns. What could be simpler than ToDo, Doing and Done?
Of course, for a team, you need to be able to share out tasks to individual members. A suitable project management system will let you assign tasks and set dates when they are due for completion.
Top tip 6: Tracking your time
Many digital project management platforms (you know, like Breeze!) include a time tracking function. These can be really flexible. You can literally start and stop a timer to record the real-time elapsed doing each task. However, should you forget to stop and start or just want to work to a fixed cost, you can just set the time for each task.
A really good feature to look for is the ability to set time as billable or non-billable. This means you can see where your team’s time is going, even when it can’t be recharged to the client project.
Top tip 7: Keep a check on your estimates
Many dedicated project management apps (including Breeze!) let you get hold of the very important element of budget. For many knowledge businesses, the time your team spends on the project is the major component of the final cost. So, time tracking is critical to understanding where the financial side of each project is.
With the hours estimated or spent on each task, and your hourly rate factored in, the total budget is automatically calculated. Keeping track of the time and the proportion of the budget that has been used up means that you can stay right on top of the financial side of things.
Top tip 8: See what is happening with reports
Of course, all of these elements that are recorded within the project management system need to be available for analysis. A good system lets you report on every data point that is recorded.
Who has been doing what? What tasks have been completed? Where are things are in a workflow? What is overdue? How much time has been spent? How much of the budget has been eaten up? These are some of the key questions your chosen system needs to report on.
The best reporting lets you see the big picture and lets you drill down to see the fine detail. Bookmark and share reports. You may even be able to do this with someone that does not have a Breeze account, such as a client. No need to send the latest report - the link you share leads them straight to the latest report updated in real time. (You probably already guessed it, but Breeze does all of this and more!)